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A Separate Canaan

The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763–1840

Jon Sensbach

Paper: 978-0-8078-4698-8 ($35.00)

Copyright 1998
University of North Carolina Press

In colonial North Carolina, German-speaking settlers from the Moravian Church founded a religious refuge—an ideal society, they hoped, whose blueprint for daily life was the Bible and whose Chief Elder was Christ himself. As the community's demand for labor grew, the Moravian Brethren bought slaves to help operate their farms, shops, and industries. Moravians believed in the universalism of the gospel and baptized dozens of African Americans, who became full members of tightly knit Moravian congregations. For decades, white and black Brethren worked and worshiped together—though white Moravians never abandoned their belief that black slavery was ordained by God.

Based on German church documents, including dozens of rare biographies of black Moravians, A Separate Canaan is the first full-length study of contact between people of German and African descent in early America. Exploring the fluidity of race in Revolutionary era America, it highlights the struggle of African Americans to secure their fragile place in a culture unwilling to give them full human rights. In the early nineteenth century, white Moravians forsook their spiritual inclusiveness, installing blacks in a separate church. Just as white Americans throughout the new republic rejected African American equality, the Moravian story illustrates the power of slavery and race to overwhelm other ideals.

About the Author

Jon F. Sensbach is assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previously, he worked as a public historian at Old Salem in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.


When white, slaveholding Moravians ceased to exchange the ‘kiss of peace’—and instead concluded to shake hands—with their black brothers and sisters they had already surrendered their belief in the spiritual unity of mankind to the emerging racial practices of American slavery. Nonetheless, the significance of that moment—and much else—is brilliantly captured in Jon Sensbach’s A Separate Canaan. Rarely has the process by which American racism emerged been exposed more fully or analyzed more carefully with an eye to both the highest aspirations of Europeans and Africans in the New World and the tragic failure to realize them. It is an extraordinary story, brilliantly told by one of the finest young scholars of colonial America.”

--Ira Berlin

A Separate Canaan tells a largely untold story: the relationship of Moravians in North Carolina to African Americans, slave and free. Sensbach carefully reconstructs the biographies of individual black Moravians, their origins, their conversions, their work patterns, and family lives. A poignant case study of religious accommodation to social and economic forces.

--Albert J. Raboteau

A Separate Canaan is one of those rare books that explores an almost totally neglected area of history. Jon Sensbach’s exhaustive study of Moravian church records uncovers in absorbing detail the exceptional, if short-lived, efforts of German Moravian settlers to establish in North Carolina a unique model of interracial fellowship built on the Christian ideal of the spiritual equality of all believers. Had the Moravians succeeded in their efforts to construct a genuine revolutionary social order, the history of American race relations might have been significantly different. This fascinating account of a significant tradition of thought within Protestant Christianity not only makes compelling reading but presses us to reconsider other such forgotten alternatives.


[An] excellent new book. Sensbach has turned to the rich, but underutilized, records of the Moravian church in North Carolina to outline the experiences of white Moravians in their new home. . . . Sensbach's book is well written and comprehensively researched. It can be highly recommended to scholars of colonial history, of African slavery or to those interested in the religious lives of immigrants, white and black, in America.

--Journal of American Studies

A fascinating case study dealing with the Afro-Moravian experience in North Carolina from 1763 to 1840. . . . Jon Sensbach has produced an intriguing study concerning the Afro-Moravian experience in North Carolina. It is a well-researched, written, and documented study.

--North Carolina Historical Review

Sensbach's investigation of slavery among southern Moravians is a valuable addition to the literature, bringing into better focus several important recent developments in the fields of religion and Afro-Americn history.

--Georgia Historical Quarterly

[A] carefully crafted study. . . . Sensbach's skillful use of sources, his splendid writing style, his focus on German-speaking Africans, and his ability to combine religious history with the history of the family make this book a valuable contribution for historians of African-Americans, religion, and colonial North America.

--Journal of Interdisciplinary History

A beautifully written book that is a pleasure to read. Sensbach is a gifted storyteller, and as he hoped, this book offers a wrenching account of America's tragic history of race relations. . . . To read this book is to come to a deeper understanding of how blacks and whites have been both connected and separated by the Christian faith.

--Journal of the Early Republic

A marvelous book, rich in detail, beautifully told, and tragic in its implications.

--William & Mary Quarterly

This evenhandedly written and painstakingly researched testament belongs on the shelves of every academic library throughout the country and every public library in North Carolina, where students and citizens turn for a clearer understanding of the sometimes distinctly separate roles of religion in American life.

--North Carolina Libraries

Exciting scholarship providing new sources for the reconstruction of the antebellum spiritual pilgrimage that accompanied blacks' long hard road to freedom.

--Journal of Southern History

[A] richly documented and engaging study of the interaction between African Americans and German Moravians in the North Carolina piedmont. . . . A model case study, for he weaves the developments within Moravian society into the larger trends in slave owning, racial ideology, and slave culture. As a result, we understand both the distinctive features of this community and how its evolution mirrored that of the wider South and nation. This book tells a compelling story, and, as Sensbach convincingly argues, an American one.

--American Historical Review